Semidwarf wheat

This story might freak you out. So put the kids to bed, close the door, and make sure no nosey neighbors are watching.

Okay. Imagine you and I are evil scientists. We want to know what happens when we mate a 6 ft 4 in-tall blonde Swede male with a 4 ft 5 in-short Mbenga Pygmy tribeswoman from the Congo. We obtain the offspring, a child somewhere in between mom and dad. Once it reaches sexual maturity, we mate this Swede-Pygmy with yet another Pygmy, but this time chosen for the shortest stature among this short race. We repeat this process several more times over several more generations. We also introduce mates that have other characteristics, such as resistance to malaria or hairlessness. We also ignore some of the unexpected genetic characteristics that emerge, such as peculiar facial features, impaired intelligence, or unique metabolic derangements.

Then the really creepy part starts. We mate our Swede-Pygmy descendant with some non-human primates, such as a Bonobo ape. The offspring are not always viable, but that’s not our concern. We just keep our creations alive with whatever artificial means are required. We also take pregnant mothers and expose them to chemicals that induce mutations in the developing fetus in utero, and use gamma radiation and high-doses of x-ray, also to induce mutations. Most of the mutations are grotesque and non-viable. But, every so often, we are lucky and the mutant survives. It may be really weird looking and have peculiar health problems, but that’s also not our concern.

At the end of this process, repeated over and over again, what do we call the poor creatures we’ve created? We can’t call them Swedish humans. We can’t call them Pygmies. They are some artificially-created thing that bears no name, no resemblance to anything that occurs in nature because we used unnatural methods to create it. But maybe it’s a 3-foot tall creature that, permitted a mix of synthetic food and drugs for sustenance, provides some unique service that we’ve sought, e.g., climbing trees to harvest coconuts.

Thankfully, nobody outside of Nazi Germany conducts such horrific practices in humans and our close primate relatives. But such practices are commonplace in plant genetics.

Apply something similar to wheat of the early 20th century, repeated crossings to winnow out specific characteristics like short stature, ease of release of the seeds, extreme oil production to discourage birds, resistance to molds and fungi; occasionally mate with non-wheat grains to introduce entirely unique genetic characteristics; and expose the seed or embryo to chemical or radiation mutagenesis to induce random mutations that occasionally are useful—well, those are the techniques used that companies like BASF like to call “traditional breeding methods.” This is the terminology that lobbyists for the wheat industry, such as those at the Grain Foods Foundation, hide behind because there is no gene-splicing technology used as in modern genetic modification techniques.

So the truth of it is that “traditional breeding methods” used to create modern semi-dwarf, high-yield strains of wheat are worse than genetic engineering–cruder, less controllable, much less predictable, with consequences outside of the intended characteristic. Yet it makes it to your supermarket shelf, your dinner table, your gastrointestinal tract, no questions asked.

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